Sunday, March 27, 2016

Perseverance, or Preservation?

The fifth and final petal of the Calvinist TULIP is one of the most visible and most debated aspects of reformed theology today, in terms of its influence on the Church. The doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints is the "so what?" of the TULIP, in terms of practical application of the other four petals of this system of theology. One of the difficulties in analyzing and discussing this petal is that there is considerable disagreement, even within Reformed circles, as to what it is and what it looks like.

At one end of the spectrum are those who maintain that Perseverance of the Saints is simply an expression of Christ's promise that:

"...I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand." (John10:28-19)

In other words, for some, this doctrine simply represents nothing more than the assurance that the believer will kept by the power of the Holy Spirit from falling completely out of faith in our Lord and Savior, and thus kept for the day of salvation. While there is ample Scriptural support for the idea that those who are Christ's need never fear final condemnation, the support for the idea that the mechanism of this security is preservation of the faith of the believer is somewhat in question. There are at least a few examples of men in Scripture that are held up as examples of faith and yet do not appear to have finished well, in terms of their faith walk. Gideon and Solomon are two of the more well-known:

Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house. (Judges 8:27)

Gideon apparently fell into idolatry in his later days (or fell under the spell of pride in his own prowess and made a monument to himself). Yet he is mentioned alongside the other giants of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Similarly, 1Kings 11 records Solomon's fall into idolatry as a result of his self-indulgent lifestyle; yet Scripture gives no indication that Solomon was condemned to eternity in Hell.

From a practical perspective, the debate over perseverance vs. preservation as described above matters very little: we dare not offer assurance to a former believer who has renounced faith in Christ, since we cannot see into their heart to know whether their former confession was genuine; nor can we see into their future to see whether they will fall under judgment. We must take those who have renounced faith at their word and approach them afresh with the Gospel as we would any unbeliever.

More troubling than the simple idea of preservation of the faith of a believer described above is the recent revival of the Puritan understanding of Perseverance of the Saints under the label "Lordship Salvation." The essential tenet of the Lordship Salvationist movement's understanding of Perseverance is that, not only will a truly saved person persevere in their faith until their end, but also that that faith will be manifest in terms of inward and outward changes in the individual - in other words, a truly saved person will not fail to have works to point to to affirm the reality of their faith. The idea is commonly phrased thusly:

"Man is saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone."

"Saving faith is changing faith."

Though there are non-Reformed denominations that have taken up the Lordship Salvation banner, the idea above has its roots in the Dortian Calvinist / Westminster Confessional understanding of the workings of salvation. Since, according to the Reformed understanding, salvation is wholly the work of God (See the previous installments on Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace), and since none who are chosen by God will fail to be saved, it also follows that none who are chosen by God will fail to manifest good works, as sanctification is also wholly accomplished by God, requiring neither man's assent nor cooperation.

On the surface, the above belief might seem relatively innocuous. After all, who can imagine being indwelled by the Holy Spirit not having an impact on the believer? It is in the application of this idea that the Church runs into trouble - and the results have been disastrous. In practical terms, the issues arise as the presence of works becomes the basis of assurance of salvation (many will object to this characterization, but the simple fact is; if works are the only assurance of the reality of one's faith and if salvation is through faith, then it follows that the presence of works is required for assurance of salvation, even if not for salvation itself). The consequences of this kind of thinking have had a profound impact in turning congregations away from the cross. I'll try to summarize the damaging impact of this cancerous theology in a few short paragraphs:

1. Lordship Salvation minimizes the importance of the cross (despite the vigorous claims of Lordship Salvationist's claims to the contrary). An inevitable result of a theology that places emphasis on works as "proof" of one's faith as that the eyes of the system's adherents are turned downward and inward, rather than outward and upward. This is the opposite of what Christ commanded and promised:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

Jesus referred His hearers to Numbers 21, in which a bronze serpent was raised on a staff by Moses, that whoever was bitten by the poisonous snakes could look up to it and be cured. The constant refrain of Scripture is that we are saved, and then strengthened, not by looking down and in, constantly evaluating and attempting to better ourselves (or "believe harder"), but by looking out and up to the cross.

2. Lordship Salvation can lead to false assurance. This may seem ironic, given that the Lordship Salvation movement arose in response to what it's modern proponents viewed as the false assurance of so-called "easy believism," but the reality is that the problem of false assurance is not solved at all by Lordship Salvation. Lordship Salvationists can frequently be seen quoting Matthew 7:21: 

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, 

but they often quote it without the important context of the following verses: 

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matthew 7:22-23).

So here we have people that call Jesus "Lord, Lord" and who have done many wonderful - even miraculous - works in Jesus' name, yet Jesus says He never knew them. Why? Because they are relying on their works as evidence that they are in God's favor.  Also, they are missing the answer to a key question posed by the Jews of Jesus: 

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:28-29)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:38-40)

We see a similar situation in Jesus' account of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14).

Note from this passage that the Pharisee actually thanked and credited God for his personal growth and holiness, but this false humility was to be his undoing. His assurance rested in his purportedly God-given ability to live in holiness; rather than in God's infinite mercy. How is this materially any different from the Calvinist Lordship Salvationist who boasts in the changes God has wrought in his life as evidence his faith is real? I tell you the truth; there are thousands, perhaps millions of adherents to Lordship soteriology that are in the same situation as the Pharisee in Luke 18 - self-assured of their salvation because of their "changed lives" and yet actually on their way to eternal condemnation. The publican, on the other hand, approached the altar deeply convinced of his own unworth and with a simple plea for mercy; and it was the "easy-believing" publican that went away justified.

3. Lordship Salvation stokes feelings of pride and exclusivity and promotes comparison of ourselves with others, rather than with the impossible standard of holiness set by Christ. When we question another's faith, based on some external evidence (or lack of evidence) that we perceive, yet claim to have assurance of salvation ourselves, what are we really saying? What we are really saying, once we strip away the thin veneer of praise to God is this: "If that person were just a little more like me, I would believe their faith is real." Again - this is the error of the Pharisee above, of which Christ warned: the proud shall be abased (brought down), while the humble shall be exalted (lifted up).

4. Lordship Salvation saps believers of their strength and burdens them with fear, reducing their effectiveness as witnesses for Christ. When the Judaisers (a.k.a first-century Lordship Salvationists) attempted to force a standard of law-keeping upon their new gentile brethren, Peter passionately spoke up:

So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they. (Acts 15:8-11)

John MacArthur (who is the acknowledged champion of the system known as Lordship Salvation) and other Lordship Salvationist teachers preach what they preach, because they believe they are "helping" professed believers to avoid taking grace lightly and to maintain an appropriate fear of God and His judgment. Peter warns that this is not "helping" believers, but needlessly burdening them and tearing them down. In fact he warns that those who try to mix the message of grace with a works requirement for assurance are "testing God" - that is, risking bringing God's wrath upon themselves!

5. They are disobeying Christ's instructions for the Church:

Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Believers are not to try to separate the wheat (true believers) from the tares (fakers / look-alikes), because they are unequipped to judge the heart, and because, in trying to pull the weeds (tares), they will also uproot the wheat.  This is happening in countless churches across the world, as Christians, encouraged to look critically at themselves and one another, find themselves agonizing over some unresolved sin issue or other in their lives, doubting the reality of their faith (and therefore their salvation), and, in many cases, ultimately giving up, unable to bear the burden the Israelites could not bear.

So, we can see that the (mis)application of Lordship theology can turn churches away from God and bring them into disobedience, but what about the basis for Lordship Salvation theology?  Surely the proponents of this doctrine / system did not pull it out of thin air?

Lordship Salvationists tend to draw primary support for their theology from the book of James (especially James 2:14-26), also with citations from 1 John and the Gospel accounts of the Sermon on the Mount.  John MacArthur has been quoted as saying that James 2 is the clearest presentation of the Gospel in the Scriptures.  

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)

Without any additional context, this passage seems to indicate that faith must be accompanied by works, in order to be saving faith.  This is certainly the meaning extracted by John MacArthur, Paul Washer, and other proponents of the Lordship Salvation position.  But there are several problems with such an interpretation, and with its inevitable application in practical Christian living:

1. The passage is acknowledged as controversial and its meaning is disputed.  Martin Luther is said to have wanted to tear the book from his Bible.  One of the rules of sound Biblical hermeneutics is that controversial or unclear (perhaps because of context or grammar) passages should be interpreted in the light of passages that are uncontroversial and simpler (e.g. unambiguous from the standpoint of grammar or contact), rather than the other way around.  One such passage, whose meaning is relatively undisputed is Romans 4:5:

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,

Romans 4:5 clearly acknowledges the possibility of a believer that does not work, and clearly indicates that such a believer would be justified.  Since God does not contradict Himself, this should alert the Bible student to the possibility that the meaning of James 2 might not be as clear-cut as the Lordship Salvationist would lead us to believe.  There is at least some dispute as to where the hypothetical conversation actually ends and James' commentary begins (the quotes do not appear in the Greek to set off the conversation).  There is also a question of what kind  of salvation (the Greek word could also be translated "deliverance") is in view.  Some argue, that since Paul's letters state rather emphatically that salvation is through faith alone, the delivery / salvation spoken of in James 2 must refer to a temporal salvation.  For the record, I find the idea that the word "salvation" in the same context as the word "faith" refers to temporal, rather than eternal deliverance to be somewhat of a stretch.  Having said that, I still do not believe this passage to be a defense of Lordship Salvation for the reasons below.

2. The Lordship Salvationist interpretation of this passage ignores the context of the passage.  While Paul in the book of Romans is clearly speaking of justification before the Father, the main point of James seems to be our witness and justification before men.  The hypothetical conversation above is between two men - each debating the question of faith and works and how they fit together.  We do not show our faith to God by our works - God alone sees and judges the heart.   

3. Just as important to this argument as what James does say in this passage is what he does not say.  He does not say "I show my salvation by my works. Much is made of James' rhetorical question "Can [such] faith save?"  The answer here is obviously "no," but what is under discussion is the condition of a person's faith in the present.  As we saw from the account of Peter's famous walk on the Sea of Galilee, faith may ebb and flow over the life of a believer.  Lot's faith led to action, as did that of Abraham, David, Solomon, Gideon, and others.  Yet, just as Peter became distracted and sank into the waves, Lot fell almost immediately into sin following his rescue.  Gideon is recorded as having fallen into (been snared by) idolatry, taking his family and all Israel with him.  David's reign was marred by adultery that he attempted to cover with a murder.  Abraham slept with Hagar and twice allowed his wife to be brought into the king's harem.  In each of these cases, the faith of the Bible hero did result in some initial decision or action, but the notion that such works must continue unabated throughout the life of the believer for his faith to be real is plainly refuted by Scripture.  Similarly, the oft-quoted James 2:19 does not say that demons believe in Jesus.  It says, they believe that God is one (they believe there is one God).  So do Muslims, Jehovah's witnesses, unsaved Jews and many others outside the Christian faith.  Again, the point missed is not necessarily the quality or size of one's faith, but also the object of one's faith.

4. This passage is often abused by adding observation the Law of Sinai as a sign of true faith.  Note that in their discussion of "true saving faith" these teachers seem almost obsessively to relate the "works" of James 2 back to Jesus' exposition of the Law of Sinai in the Sermon on the Mount (especially with regard to lust and other forms of covetousness),  but James is not in disagreement with his contemporary, Paul, concerning the Law.  In his letter, James cites the Law of Liberty,  which finds itself, not on the stone tablets of Moses (the "slave woman"), but in Jesus' finished work of redemption (the "free woman").  Under the Law of Liberty, believers do good works, not because they must, in order to avoid hell or to prove their faith genuine, but because they can, secure in the assurance that if they fail, they are already forgiven.  Note that none of the "signs" of faith referred to by James in this passage (caring for the needy, taming our tongue of gossip, turning away from favoritism, protecting our brothers and sisters from harm) seem to be the signs most looked for and discussed by Lordship Salvationists.

In fact, we find so little real support in the Bible for the claims of Lordship Salvationists, that the Lordship Salvationists are forced to invent meanings and twist Scriptures to fit their doctrine.   A key to the Lordship Salvationist argument is the definition of faith they offer.  Drawing from the passage in James 2 above, Lordship Salvationists have redefined faith as commitment.   In the Lordship Salvationist church, you will not find the simple message of hope given to the Philippian jailor by Paul and Silas: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  Instead you will find an offer to "commit to Christ," or "commit your life to Christ."  Now, this would not be so terrible a thing, if the teachers using these terms had in mind the idea of committing oneself into Christ's hands (e.g. for safekeeping), but this is clearly not the case.  In this case, the idea of commitment carries with it the promise or intent to live a life of obedience.  But would this not render the gift an exchange, rather than a gift? An yet, over and over again in Scripture, we find salvation described as a gift - and a free gift at that.

I believe God anticipated the arguments, as well as the educated, lofty-sounding words men would use to burden His people with the assurance that the Greek meaning of key words like faith "is so much deeper, so much more all-encompassing" than their English renderings, when He caused Hebrews 11:1 to be penned:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Here we see faith distilled down to the very meaning that any speaker of the language would understand it to convey: believing in something we cannot see.

Drawing upon the forced meanings of words like faith, and drawing upon the other four tenets of the Calvinist TULIP, we find another startling revelation often given in Lordship Salvationist circles:  It is not enough to come to Christ out of fear of eternal punishment.  We must come to Christ out of love.  

In "What is Reformed Theology?" R.C. Sproul puts it like this: 

"In our fallen condition, we desire the benefits that only God can give, but we do not want him.  We want the gifts without the Giver, the benefits without the Benefactor"

The implication is that motivation to come to Christ for eternal life, or out of fear of damnation results somehow in a counterfeit faith - a faith that is inadequate to save, because it is the result, not of regeneration, but of carnal fear and self-interest.  I wonder what Sproul and others would make of righteous Lot, whose conscience was singed by the things he experienced in Sodom, according to Scripture (2 Peter 2:7), and yet remained unmotivated to leave that evil place until faced with certain destruction?  What would they make of the words of the disciples: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)?

The Bible instructs us that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10).   This does not mean fear is the place to stay, but it certainly means that fear is a legitimate, even good, place to start.

The Calvinist Lordship Salvationist believes he is justified in exchanging the simple call to believe in Jesus for a call to commitment, because he believes that faith comes from regeneration (and thus should encompass the attributes of mature faith at the outset), in spite of the Bible's admonishment that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word about Christ" (Romans 10:17).  

Now, do not get me wrong.  I believe that every Christian is called to be committed to Christ and to Christ's work.  But this comes with discipleship and maturity. Faith and commitment are not the gift spoken of in Ephesians 2:8-9, salvation is the gift. 

Faith can also be considered a gift, in that we see that it comes from hearing God's word.  Hebrews 4:12 promises that the Word is like a sword - cutting to the dividing of soul and spirit.  Does this mean that everyone  who hears the word is saved? No, but it does mean that everyone who hears the word is cut to the quick and must choose how they would respond.  Look around when the true Gospel is being preached.  You will see one of two reactions: joy at the good news, or hostility at the implication that we might need a savior.

So we find the modern interpretation of the doctrine Perseverance to be lacking in terms of Biblical support for its conclusions, as well as its application.  If you are a believer finding yourself beset by and burdened with the leaven of Lordship Salvationists today, I pray this post will bring you a measure of peace and assurance.  If you are a Lordship Salvationist, I pray it will cause to to reflect on where your faith lies.  Is it assurance in the unseen Christ, or our own fallible experiences?  If you are an unbeliever, do not wait until you are ready, or until your motivation is "pure" to reach for the lifeline offered by Christ.  Today is the day of salvation.

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